What the 2020-21 budget means for Australia’s health sector

Doctor and patient during a telehealth appointment

On 6 October, the Morrison government delivered its 2020-21 budget in the wake of the health, social and economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic. And with the nation grappling with the biggest health crisis in a century, it is fair to say that the health sector has been one of the hardest hit during this time.

The government has announced it will provide a record $115.5 billion in 2020–21 and $467 billion over the forward estimates to deliver the essential health services detailed under the Long Term National Health Plan.

Here, we provide a snapshot of the sectors that will benefit, those that perhaps missed out, how the budget could affect healthcare workers, as well as the sector’s response.


Emergency pandemic response

In an effort to strengthen the COVID-19 health response, the government has committed more than $16 billion to emergency health.  $750 million will be funnelled into COVID-19 testing and $171 million to the continued operation of up to 150 dedicated respiratory clinics. Australia’s testing rates are amongst some of the highest in the world and there are hopes that this additional funding will ensure access to testing for all Australians, including in regional and remote communities.

In an effort to provide Australians with safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, the government is providing $1.7 billion to secure access to over 84.8 million doses of potential vaccines being developed by the University of Oxford and the University of Queensland. Furthermore, almost $6 million from the Medical Research Future Fund’s Coronavirus Research Response, will support research and development of COVID-19 vaccines at Australian universities.

However, the Public Health Association of Australia has condemned this use of funding, describing it as “reactionary” and lamenting that the government has bypassed any substantial investment in boosting Australia’s preparedness for “inevitable” future public health crises.

“It’s terribly disappointing, and borders on disastrous, that in this biggest-spending budget in our history, most of the eggs have gone into the economic recovery basket while urgently needed public health investment has largely been overlooked,” PHAA CEO Terry Slevin said in a statement.

“We fully recognise the importance of getting the economy firing again, but we have learned that if governments aren’t on top of public health, they’re not on top of economic management either.”


New commitment to telehealth

Telehealth has seen an enormous uptake this year. It’s been revolutionary in how primary care is delivered in Australia, with the pandemic forcing the industry to quickly adapt to social distancing regulations and lockdown restrictions. To 30 September 2020, more than 32.8 million telehealth services were delivered, with a total investment of more than $2.4 billion.

The 2020-21 Budget will put forward $2.4 billion for the extension of telehealth services for a further six months, during which time a long-term design will be developed in conjunction with medical groups and the community. Telehealth for specialists and allied health has also been extended.


Public mental health to receive funding boost

While the impact that the pandemic has had on mental health can’t yet be known, the effects are predicted to be significant. There are fears that factors like unemployment, financial security and social isolation, heightened by COVID-19 and the consequent recession, will have dramatic consequences on the mental health of Australians.

The Budget has committed 5.7 billion for mental health, including Medicare-subsidised psychology sessions up from 10 to 20 sessions nationally. $74 million of this will be used to create a new Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Line and boost the capacity of key mental health services, with $48.1 million allocated to support the National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan.

Recognising the particular difficulties faced by Victorians, which has experienced the longest lockdown period of any state, a further $12 million will be provided to support outreach to young people and secure helpline capacity, $26.9 million for 15 new HeadtoHelp enhanced mental health clinics, and $5 million for additional digital services for specific vulnerable groups.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) welcomed this funding, however said it was disappointing the government had still not made the long-awaited final report of the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Mental Health public.

“Without the blueprint for comprehensive mental health sector reform it is difficult to move beyond short-term and discrete injections of funding,” says RANZCP President Associate Professor John Allan. “… we are still missing that fundamental investment in redesigning a mental health system we so urgently need now and into the future.”


Healthcare workers mental health support lacking

Despite the significant Budget funding for mental health services, there are calls for dedicated funding to be allocated to the mental health of the medical workforce which has been placed under enormous pressure during this time.

The peak body of Australian medical students said it was disappointed the Budget has not allocated any funding to addressing the severity of the medical workforce mental health crisis, much of which has been created by the stress of working during the pandemic.

“The profound challenges of 2020, from a disastrous bushfire season to a viral pandemic, mean that the psychological and social health of Australians require additional mental health support,” says Australian Medical Students Association President Daniel Zou. “Everything from COVID-19 to medical education this year has further overwhelmed the scarce mental health support initiatives for medical students.”


Aged care investment, but is it enough?

In recognition of the ongoing pressure and challenges faced by workers delivering frontline aged care services, the government’s 2020-21 Budget will provide $205.1 million for the Workforce Retention Bonus Payment, which encourages residential and home care workers to continue providing direct care services during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is also $10.8 million committed to improving pathways for new nurses to pursue a career in aged care and enhance the skills of existing nurses and care workers in aged care, including through a new Skill Development Program for aged care staff.

An additional 23,000 additional home care packages will be funded, however there are calls from industry groups that this is still not enough to reduce the long waiting list of over 100,000 elderly Australians waiting up to 12-months or more for an appropriate home care package. Furthermore, there are concerns from the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Foundation (ANMF) that the emphasis on job support for those working in aged care is not enough.

“It’s disappointing that there’s no action on job security and no action of improving wages and conditions for aged care workers,” says ANMF Federal Secretary, Annie Butler. “If jobs are the cornerstone of the national economic recovery-plan, the ANMF is calling on the Government to act now and address the dangerously inadequate levels of qualified nurses and care staff working in aged care.”


If you are looking for skilled healthcare workers, partner with a recruitment agency that understands your specific industry needs and contact Austra Health today.

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